Colorado History

Tom's Structure Will Stay, but Diner Is History

Tom's Diner in all its neon glory, before the COVID-19 closure.
Tom's Diner in all its neon glory, before the COVID-19 closure. Brandon Marshall
At this time last year, the hottest restaurant topic in town was the fate of Tom's Diner, whose owner had applied for a certificate of non-historic status for the property at 601 East Colfax Avenue with Denver’s Landmark Preservation Commission on May 3, 2019. Fans of classic Googie architecture, not to mention the history of Colfax Avenue itself, were quick to complain, and some filed a counter-application to have the circa 1967 coffee shop declared historic.

The standoff ended in a last-second win-win: A history-friendly developer, GBX Group, stepped in, and owner Tom Messina, who'd run the diner for two decades, got to sell the property and retire. The Tom's Diner building is now on the National Register of Historic Places, and the structure will be worked into any new development on the property.

But the 24/7 diner itself is history.

Today, the hottest restaurant topic in town is when restaurants will be able to reopen. Although Messina had originally hoped to operate his place through spring, those plans were canceled by the coronavirus pandemic. The eatery closed in March, and the property is now fenced off for security...and in anticipation of redevelopment.

"Tom was planning on winding down the Diner in June, and with the onset of COVID-19, that moved the date up," GBX Group notes in an email.

The pandemic has not put other historic fights on pause, though.

In February, the owner of the building at 727 South University Boulevard housing the Saucy Noodle, a fifty-plus-year-old Italian joint, filed to have that structure declared non-historic; that application was granted, and the building has been sold. And then came...COVID-19 closures. Erin Markham, granddaughter of Saucy Noodle founder Sam Badis, who runs the eatery with her husband, Nathan, has said that they'll look for another location; in the meantime, they've reopened the restaurant for to-go and delivery.

Last month, the owner of the property at 4586 Tennyson Street, which is home to the popular Local 46, filed for a Certificate of Demolition Eligibility; it was granted by the city last week. But Local 46's lease runs for another fifteen months, and the property's owner has said that it was just exploring options when it filed. Local 46 is also open for takeout.

And then there's the building at 777 East 17th Avenue that most recently housed Tony P's. In early March, its longtime owner, too, applied for a Certificate of Demolition Eligibility. The building has been home to many restaurants and bars over the past forty years, from Pasquini's to JR's Bar & Grill to Majorca (where John Hickenlooper once staged an exorcism in an attempt to help the location vanquish evil spirits) to the Peacock and the Dome.

Its time as JR's, a legendary gay bar at the heart of what was known as Lavender Row, is cited in the city's assessment of the property, but so are the many structural changes that have removed some of the building's architectural integrity.

Annie Levinsky, the head of Historic Denver, has been involved in the discussion regarding all of these properties. She says that talks regarding 777 East 17th Avenue are ongoing, and that "the developer is committed to engaging with neighbors." And no matter what ultimately happens to that building, she notes that "there's interest in looking at 17th Avenue more broadly."

And there will be more discussions to come. Because despite the pandemic, the preservation process keeps "chugging along," Levinsky notes. "The city couldn't pause."
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Patricia Calhoun co-founded Westword in 1977; she’s been the editor ever since. She’s a regular on the weekly CPT12 roundtable Colorado Inside Out, played a real journalist in John Sayles’s Silver City, once interviewed President Bill Clinton while wearing flip-flops, and has been honored with numerous national awards for her columns and feature-writing.
Contact: Patricia Calhoun